30 November 2009

Craig who?

Somewhere recently I came across the name of Craig Johnson [left] and a list of the books he's written. I don't remember where it was, but I wrote down the list and took it with me to the Northfield library when I was last there.

Sure enough, one of his books was in the catalog, Death Without Company.

What had caught my attention initially was that Johnson comes from northern Wyoming. The author bio on the back flap says he lives in "Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five." (Sure enough, if you look for Ucross on Google Earth, you'll see a highway intersection with a few houses. And just north of the intersection is The Ranch at Ucross, a dude ranch and meeting center (for the private corporate getaway far from distractions). Ucross is a few dozen miles northeast of Cody.

What I wondered was what kind of writers club they have in northern Wyoming or what's in the water there. Johnson lives there and writes about it. So do C. J. Box and Margaret Coel. And then there's Diane Smith, a Montanan whose books, Letters from Yellowstone and Pictures from an Expedition, are historical fiction about the big park just west of where the other books are set. Seems like a high density of writers for such a sparsely populated area.

Back to Death Without Company. I liked it, but i wasn't carried away by it. But that might have been my fault. I started the book in widely separated tiny bits of time. So, the beginning and the introduction of characters was hit or miss for me. I had trouble throughout the rest of the book keeping track of who was who and how they were connected. And there were quite a few whos to keep track of.

I also had trouble tracking the scenes in the story line. Half a dozen times I felt like I'd missed a transition, and had to go back and reread a section. I never found a missed transition, and then I had to cogitate and imagine what had happened between scene A and scene B. Usually I could make up a reasonable explanation, but I'd really rather have an author tell me what he "saw" happening between a climax and the resumption of the story.

The other problem I had was imagining the scenes. Much of the story takes places during snow storms, but I kept picturing night time. Then one of Johnson's characters would do something that clearly had to be done in daylight and I'd have to re-imagine what was going on. It might have been my inattention, but I think more description would have helped.

One final bit: this story gets a couple Heart of Gold medals for improbabilities. Too many wounded heros, too many important coincidences, too much serendipity.

I won't judge Johnson's other books by this one, and I will search out another. This was good enough to encourage me to read another. Even my old favorite Tony Hillerman didn't write a superb novel every time he tried.

Johnson has written half a dozen mysteries in the past decade. Have you read any of them? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

See also:

26 November 2009

Neurological anthropologist

While we were in California, I finished a book and had thoughts of finding a bookstore, when I spotted Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars on Jeff's bookshelf. Jeff was generous in allowing me to borrow it, and implied that returning it was not necessary.

Once again I was more intrigued by the idea of Sacks' book than by the book itself.

I probably should have known after my ambivalent reaction to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks profiles people with quite peculiar problems that result in quite peculiar behavior. His goal in his observations is determine how people's brains work and don't work by observing their behaviors. In this respect, he's very much an anthropologist.

But he's a scientist and a neurologist and he offers much more than sideshow curiosities. He describes clinical details and elaborate hypotheses about how the brain functions. He relates the people he's writing about to other people he and others have written about. Once again, that's more than I really wanted. I skimmed a lot of pages.

The best of the profiles in this book is of the blind man who, in middle age, gains eyesight after surgery. What makes it the best is that Sacks raises questions about differences between seeing and looking. Those of us who are sighted don't understand how much learning goes into the process of looking. We have been learning since birth, and were pretty good at it before we could speak. The middle-aged man who had never seen anything before has to learn to distinguish foreground from background; to distinguish between spheres and cubes with his eyes, not just his fingers; to recognize eyes and noses and faces. It's not easy, and people like the one Sacks describes often fall into deep depression after experiencing sight for the first time. This man did.

In other profiles, Sacks marvels over the artistic and musical skills of a child who can barely speak, a surgeon who has Tourette's syndrome, and a man with literally no short term memory. These are out-of-the-ordinary people, but most of Sacks' book is more textbook than I wanted.

It helped me pass the time on the flight back from California, but skimming through the last half was more a self-imposed chore than a pleasure.

Have you read it? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

20 November 2009

Not everything can live up to expectations

We were getting ready to head for California to see the incredible granddaughter and the incredible Yosemite. Luckily, our flight was non-stop, but still long. I paused at Target in front of the paperback best sellers and grabbed Jonathan Kellerman's True Detectives. Kellerman's reliable, isn't he?

Well, yes, he's reliable. But he's not always great. This book features a couple characters who evidently appeared in one earlier book, but they aren't the usual stars of Kellerman's mysteries. Instead of the aristocratic psychologist, there's Aaron Fox, trendy fashion plate private investigator, and instead of the gay veteran detective Kellerman creates Fox's half brother LAPD detective, Moses Reed.

Of course, these two guys are as different as Kellerman can think to make them. It's an investigative odd couple. Aaron is a few years older and making piles of money he spends on fancy cars and fancier clothes. Moses is a straight arrow cop with a chip on his shoulder. Neither of them knew their fathers, who were cops and killed in the line of duty. They never got along as kids and they still don't, according to Kellerman's telling of the story. They run into each other once in awhile when spending time with their mother.

A cold case murder brings them together and neither of them is excited about the prospect. But the conflict/rivalry/opposition never really came to life for me. And, by the end of the book, the brothers are joking and sharing mutual admiration. But the progression of the realtionship was never really explained to me. I don't really know how that happened.

The book kept my mind off flying between those brief naps I always take on long flights. The story was nothing special. At least the playboy didn't make a move on the cop's wife.

Both the granddaughter and Yosemite lived up to expectations, and that's why we got on the plane in the first place.

If you agree with me about True Detectives or think it was special, write and tell this little bit of the world why.

When I finish it, I'll have a few things to say about the Oliver Sachs textbook I read on the way home.